Category Archives: Academia

Is History Over? How Can Power be Soft? Ask Ulf Hannerz

 

  • The end of history
  • The clash of civilizations
  • The coming anarchy
  • Soft power

We’ve all heard these trendy mottos, and most of us have probably cringed.

Anthropologists know the world as an infinitely more complex place than such simplistic catch-phrases and predictions can possibly describe.

Yet simplistic catch-phrases and predictions are–well, catchy.

In a new book, instead of dismissing them out of hand, Ulf Hannerz tackles these pseudo-scholarly slogans head-on.

One of our discipline’s most renowned, thoughtful, and witty writers, Hannerz has just published a new collection of tightly interrelated essays analyzing the blockbuster books that have promoted popular yet maddeningly misleading scenarios predicting anything from political realignment of continents to doom and gloom for the world.

UlfHannerzKolkata2015

Writing Future Worlds: An Anthropologist Explores Global Scenarios (Springer/Palgrave, 2016) appears as part of a new series, Palgrave Studies in Literary Anthropology, edited by Deborah Reed-Danahay and Helena Wulff.

The book’s prologue + nine chapters (some, previously published in different forms) combine to make a case that anthropology is more relevant than ever.

Anthropologist Didier Fassin has this to say about the book:

With his uniquely elegant style and subtle irony, Ulf Hannerz offers a penetrating anthropological reflection on this singular anticipatory genre that simplifies and dramatizes the representation of global tensions. Multiplying examples and crossing perspectives, he proposes an indispensable critical analysis of the way in which our worldviews are shaped.

And Michael Herzfeld cheekily sums up the book’s importance by urging:

This book deserves greater and longer-lasting prominence than those with which it engages.

You can find a Table of Contents and an excerpt from the Prologue here.

And the publisher offers discounted e-books for sale here.

Hannerz, Writing Future Worlds-Photo (Front & Back Covers)

I recently interviewed Ulf Hannerz online.  Here’s what he had to say (AG = Alma Gottlieb; UH = Ulf Hannerz):

 

Interview with Ulf Hannerz

AG:

Traditionally, cultural anthropologists have specialized in local, micro-communities.  In this book, instead of a remote village, you train your eyes on a very different tribe: the miniscule set of public intellectuals who have published books claiming to explain everything occurring in the modern world, and predicting what will happen next to our species and our planet.  As an anthropologist, what special insights can you bring to this tribe?

 

UH:

Let me contextualize and historicize a bit. There was a time when most social science and humanities disciplines were quite Eurocentric, and anthropologists seemed to have much of the world more or less to themselves, as far as the production of scholarly knowledge was concerned. That began to change in the Cold War era with “area studies programs” and the like, and then toward the end of the twentieth century, terms like “globalization” and “transnational” entered our vocabulary. Some time in the 1990s, after periods of field work in a Nigerian town for one thing (and finding “creolization”), I began to take an overall interest in the landscape of transnational knowledge production, in and out of academia. I did a first conference paper identifying three categories of professional people who, like anthropologists, had been pioneers in that field: spies, missionaries, and foreign correspondents. Their objectives and working circumstances were, of course, quite different from those of anthropologists. And, characteristically, the relationships between them and the anthropologists have tended to be complicated. I described that effort as “studying sideways,” and that is what I have been doing since.

“Studying up” and “studying down” in anthropology have involved mostly differences in power and privilege. “Studying sideways” is more a matter of looking at groups on more or less parallel tracks of knowledge production–in the scholarly disciplines, in the media, or wherever. I turned first to news media foreign correspondents, and a book came out of that – Foreign News (2004). Incidentally, when I first made contact with some of them, introducing myself as an anthropologist, they responded, “So we will be your tribe.”

Now, what can I bring as an anthropologist, studying sideways into the genre of global future scenarios? For one thing, a knowledge of relevant ethnography. Even when the writers in question do touch ground somewhere in the world, you may get eloquent, impressionistic reporting, but often shoddy, misleading description. And that reporting is very uneven – people’s everyday life can be very important in generating their futures, and the scenario writers tend to give little attention to that. Probably they have seen little of it, in other parts of the world.

I would also compare their concepts with ours. For one thing, a number of them use the culture concept in ways that few anthropologists would now accept.  Indeed, they may be inclined to what, within our discipline, has recently been described as “cultural fundamentalism.” Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis stands out as one example. I know there are anthropologists who feel that as the concept is often misused, we should just give up on “culture.” I think that is an ostrich policy. The concept will not go away just because one academic discipline turns away from it. If it is a key notion in understanding human life, and involves matters where we may still be recognized as having some intellectual authority, let us use that in whistleblowing when we feel that the culture concept is misused. So I use it above all as a matter of understanding the organization of human diversity, varying in scale between the global ecumene and microcultures, and always in motion in time and space. That matters, whether you are dealing with “soft power” or “Jihad versus McWorld.”

 

AG:

The authors you profile in this book propose models for understanding human societies that most anthropologists would dismiss as hopelessly reductionistic. Besteman and Gusterson (2005) and others have already scorned these “pundits” for having gotten everything wrong.  What made you decide to spend more time commenting on their simplistic (often binary) models?

 

UH:

Part of the answer is that I had already started on this before Besteman’s and Gusterson’s Why America’s Top Pundits are Wrong came out. I fundamentally agreed with their and their collaborators’ critiques. But I also felt that there was much more to be said. For one thing, there was that title. Certainly, these “top pundits” may have been American, and addressing primarily U.S. readers – a general audience, but sometimes not least the White House, Foggy Bottom and Pentagon.

Even in the American context, the place of the “scenarios” in public culture seemed interesting. The writers inhabited a complex terrain of academia, media, think tanks and politics, and there was an interplay between the long-term views of the scenarios they proposed, and that daily coverage of international news that I knew about from my study of foreign correspondents.  Since I came from an anthropological interest in the ways that networks weave in and out of institutional contexts, that probably intrigued me.

But then, the simplistic “scenarios” that those scholars and journalists proposed actually found quite a lot of readers just about everywhere. A number of these authors appeared on ranking lists of “top global public intellectuals.” I soon found their books, in the original or in translation, in airport book stalls all over Europe and Asia—often, next to how-to-succeed-in-business type books.) When Samuel Huntington died in 2006, one obituary noted that his “clash of civilizations” book had been translated into three dozen languages. For that matter, I could read in Swedish newspapers that the leader of the growing Swedish neonationalist, more or less xenophobic, political party had talked about the “clash of civilizations” as if it were an established fact, at campaign meetings in 2014.

That first generation of America’s top pundits, too, was in large part based somewhere on the stretch between Cambridge, MA, via New York to Washington, DC – with some trans-Atlantic commuters from Britain. This is the home ground of a lot of American academic, media, and political power. I add some number of writers from that group, like Joseph Nye, Robert Kagan and Niall Ferguson. Then, however, I go on to consider the contributions of a number of other, mostly later writers. Some of them resemble that prominent cohort of anthropologists, particularly in the United States, who have sometimes playfully described themselves as “halfies”: people who have some of their personal background linking them to other parts of the world. This includes people like Amy Chua (actually more famous for her “Tiger mother” book on tough-minded parenthood) and Fareed Zakaria – with his Harvard Ph.D. (advised by Samuel Huntington) but more recently a CNN talk show host, and a Washington Post columnist.

But I also consider a number of contributors to the scenario genre from elsewhere in the world: including Bernard-Henri Lévy and Amin Maalouf from France, and Kishore Mahbubani from Singapore. These, again, are global public intellectuals, with mixed academic, political, and media involvements. With people like these, the “global future scenario” genre really becomes part of a world-wide public culture. I would like to see it as a space of conversations about the future of the world. Yet the trouble is that there is not a whole lot of dialogue. Those European and Asian writers are frequently familiar with the American pundits and comment on them, but the Americans do not seem to pay much attention to these far-away others.  That, of course, is another, dubious, aspect of American soft power.

 

AG:

Most anthropologists do face-to-face ethnographic fieldwork with live humans living in communities.  You’ve done plenty of this sort of fieldwork yourself.  But in this book, your interlocutors are authors, many of them fellow Ph.D.-bearing scholars in the social sciences who you’ve never met (notably, Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama, Joseph Nye, Thomas Friedman, among others).  Moreover, unlike your book about foreign correspondents—who you interviewed—for this book, your data set is the corpus of books, not their authors.  What was it like to do this sort of virtual fieldwork in the “virtual community,” if we might call it that, of quasi-scholarly books, without doing a single interview, let alone “participant observation”?  Or, do you consider the act of reading the books you discuss here, a literary form of “participant observation”?

 

UH:

With the foreign correspondents, I had interviews of a kind I like to think of extended, free-flowing conversations, and I liked many of them as persons. I tend not to feel comfortable in the role of adversarial interviewer – I suspect many anthropologists don’t – and talking to writers of whose work I am in large part critical, that is what I would have to have been.

Hannerz, Foreign News-Front Cover

Moreover, I have heard people who have interviewed veteran interviewees complain that these would tend to drift into their routine responses, without listening very carefully to the questions. I suspect that might have happened too often, had I been given a chance to talk to the stars of scenario writing.  So, in my book I really don’t say very much about the writers themselves.  Instead, concentrate on the texts and their reception–their impact both nationally and transnationally.

I did conduct a set of interviews with academics in Tokyo about how the “scenarios” were received in Japan. As far as the texts are concerned, I found them interesting not only in terms of content, but also with regard to style. Writing about the future is necessarily at least semi-fiction, so I place the scenarios next to other such varieties of writing, like “subjunctive reporting” and “counterfactual history.” There is also the way their various key messages are summarized as fast food for thought, often through more or less counterintuitive catch phrases, like “the end of history,” or “the world is .”

 

AG:

Ha, yes–more like marketing slogans than analytic concepts.  There’s an argument to be made that these “future scenario” books really belong more in the genre of science fiction than social science.

 

UH:

Then, certainly, there is also the issue of the success or failure of the scenarios in anticipating what would really happen in the world, and the relationship between texts and coming realities. A hundred years ago, you had the famous commentator-muckraker Lincoln Steffens proclaim, “I have seen the future, and it works.” He made that remark about the young Soviet Union. Well, it did not really. That cohort of future scenarios that started appearing after the Soviet Union came to an end has also been a set of clear failures and mixed successes.

But what part did they play in shaping the future? Some commentators feared that Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” scenario might turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. So far, that has hardly happened – at least not on any major scale.

In fact, if you see the scenarios as in large part dystopic, early warnings, you may see them as the opposite–possibly self-destructive.  People read them, shake their heads, and do something about the threats.

Again, I would think one can most usefully see the scenarios as a kind of global conversation pieces. But then, it helps if they are really well-informed, and manage to reach out at the same time.

 

AG:

The books you analyze all claim to predict the future.  This past year has caught many “pundits” in the prediction business by surprise.  Looking back on two of the biggest political surprises to “experts” in the UK and the US—the Brexit and Trump votes—can you say that any of the authors you discuss in your book would have predicted these outcomes?

 

UH:

I suspect Robert Kaplan, who stands out as a conservative anti-elitist–in a way, a populist–might be least surprised, given the books he’s written reporting on his travels in the US. Samuel Huntington, rather anti-Muslim in his “clash of civilizations” scenario (“Islam has bloody borders”) and warning of Mexican immigration in his last book, Who Are We? (2004), could just have fit into a Trump administration if he had been alive.

Probably most of the others would have been fairly surprised. If there had ever been an “end of history” of the kind once sketched by Fukuyama, Trump seems more likely to start it going again – intentionally or unintentionally. Thomas Friedman certainly shows in his New York Times columns that he is no Trump admirer. And Joseph Nye’s program for “soft power” will not get much funding from Donald Trump.

 

AG:

Given your vast reading of world history, what surprised you the most in 2016?

 

UH:

In October 2016, before the election, I did two commentaries on the election campaign, one for a Cultural Anthropology  blog–presumably mostly for an American audience—and another one in Swedish for the new blog site of the Swedish Anthropological Association.  It was an interesting experience, writing about the same thing for two different audiences.

Looking back at them, I see that I did not take a Clinton victory for granted. But then, I had been reading some “early warning literature” relating to the American scene – beginning with Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2005)–a fair number of years ago, and then, coming closer, Mark Leibovich’s This Town (2013), about the Washington, DC elite, and George Packer’s The Unwinding the same year, an account of a country coming apart, to mention some. And then, around mid-year 2016, one book quickly became a bestseller: J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, basically an auto-ethnography. In large part, these are books by journalists. I was only a little sorry not to find more anthropologists contributing some visible grassroots ethnography to this literature.

 

AG:

Indeed, that’s a real failing on our part.

 

UH:

Then I might add that some time ago, I wrote a piece titled “The American Theater State,” inspired by Clifford Geertz’ interpretation of the precolonial Balinese state. This essay just appeared in the book, America Observed, edited by Virginia Dominguez and Jasmin Habib (2016). Changing the notion of the theater state into a traveling and comparative concept, I suggested that Americans had turned it over sideways: if the Balinese had celebrated hierarchy, the ruling obsession in American political culture became one of a dramatization of egalitarianism – no less urgent when real social inequality actually grew. As I see it, in the campaign phase of American party politics, each candidate must build his/her own campaign apparatus, and create his/her own personal “brand.” A presidential candidate should be someone to identify with: someone with appealing interests and personality. But again and again, it helps that the boundaries of politics are porous, so that existing symbolic capital can be imported from other domains: the entertainment industry, big business, televangelism, the drama of warfare.

 

So Donald Trump may be an extreme case, but he is not the first one to move in his career from show business into politics: remember Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Fred Thompson. And at present, there is a senator from Minnesota who came into politics from “Saturday Night Live.”  My favorite case here is really George Wallace’s third-party campaign in 1968. Governor Wallace, a populist in his time, tried to recruit John Wayne from Hollywood for the vice-presidential slot – Wayne was just then on the screens in Green Berets, the Vietnam War epic. But Wayne stayed loyal to the Republicans. So then Wallace reputedly attempted to get Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), to take on this part, before ending up with General Curtis LeMay. Which was a disaster.

 

AG:

Ha, you probably have a better memory of these strange nooks and crannies of American political history than most Americans.

Well, however much they disagree on particular points, all the “scenarios” you discuss in this book share a broad look at global politics.  By contrast, both the US and the UK have recently voted for a candidate or a policy, respectively, that would drastically close borders and limit immigrants.  Beyond these leading Anglophone nations, one might suggest that the opposed forces of globalization and xenophobia are at war in many nations these days.  Or, perhaps, that’s yet another simplistic binary scenario.  Regardless: who do you think best explains the current moment?

 

UH:

Probably there is no simple explanation. Above all, there is probably the fact that globalization has had its winners and its losers – which is not only a matter of competition, but also of technological changes. And established political elites have tended to pay too little attention to this, which has left a wide field open to protest parties and politicians, strong in declining areas, and combining economic messages with xenophobic scaremongering. I actually have a chapter on this in Writing Future Worlds, focusing on an early phase with such scenario notions as “Eurabia” and “Londonistan,” and Huntington’s anti-Mexican book. Islamist terrorism seems to me to be a mirror image of this, in the Middle East and in the banlieus of western Europe.

But then, one should see that 2017 has also brought some reasonably good news. It is true that xenophobic populism is now on the scene more or less everywhere in Europe, with political parties that are among the larger in many countries–but that has been in large part because the opposition to them is divided into so many parties, from establishment conservatives to Greens and post-Communists. They are mostly far from a majority of their own – the elections in the Netherlands, France, and Britain have shown that. In part, of course, that may be a reaction to Donald Trump’s presidency. And that in itself is a result of that peculiarity of the American electoral system whereby the loser of the popular vote has become president in two recent elections out of five.

One more thing: the early cohort of scenario writers paid little or no attention to the new media, which then grew and diversified extremely quickly in the period that followed.  Obviously, social media have played a major role, everywhere from the abortive 2011 Arab Spring to the 2016 election in the United States. That is a real revolution, penetrating social life just about everywhere.

 

AG:

Indeed–and we anthropologists, like other scholars, have been slow to catch up with those horses long out of the gate.

In many other arenas, you’ve been on the vanguard.  You’ve produced one of the first urban ethnographies of African-American communities, you’ve pioneered the anthropology of transnational flows, and you’ve interrogated the contemporary moment in anthropology.  What’s next?

 

UH:

Actually, I also have another new book, Small Countries: Structures and Sensibilities (2017), co-edited with Andre Gingrich, my friend and colleague in Vienna. We deal largely with countries up to 10 million inhabitants or so.  That includes some European countries like the Scandinavian countries and Austria, but we also have contributors writing about Jamaica, Sierra Leone, Israel, Singapore and New Zealand. A major point is that smallness may be both absolute and relative: the size of the population, on one hand, with its implications for the structure of social relationships; but also, perhaps, the presence of some large, more or less dominant neighbor, on the other. Ireland next to Great Britain, for example; or Austria next to Germany; or New Zealand next to Australia.

Hannerz & Gingrich, Small Countries-Structures & Sensibilities

Mostly, in my anthropological endeavors, I have not written much about my home country of Sweden, but in this case, in a concluding chapter, I get somewhat auto-ethnographic: I try to show how Swedish smallness is reflected in my own encounter with His Majesty the King, in the context and aftermath of the assassination of a prime minister, and in the festivities surrounding Nobel Prize awards.

After this editing project: well, I am leaning back a bit, but playing with different possibilities.

 

AG:  Any time you want to take a break from well-deserved relaxation, your many fans await.

 

Writing Future Worlds-Front Cover

 

 

A Review of “Euphoria” by Lily King

The novel, Euphoria, by Lily King, published in 2014, became a national best-seller and won several major literary awards.  Based loosely on a brief period in the life of Margaret Mead as she hesitated between Reo Fortune (to whom she was married) and Gregory Bateson (who the couple met while conducting research in New Guinea), the book brought wide attention to the iconic figure of 20th century American anthropology.  How did the novel shape up as a piece of intellectual history?

*

I should say from the outset that I enjoyed Euphoria (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014). I read it in a week.  At the literary level, it’s wonderfully written. I didn’t wince at awkward language or edit paragraphs in my head.  I understood why the book became a national bestseller and won several literary prizes.

Euphoria

Nevertheless, a few days after having finished it, I found myself increasingly critical and disappointed.

Spoiler alert: The rest of this review is all about the book’s ending.

Sorry about that. But for me, as an anthropologist, the ending is what really stuck with me as the book lingered in my mind.

So here’s the basic storyline.

Margaret Mead (“Nell Stone”) and fellow anthropologist, the New Zealand-born Reo Fortune (“Sedgwick Fenwick,” nicknamed “Fen”), meet on a ship and fall in love. Margaret Mead and another fellow anthropologist, Ruth Benedict (“Helen”), have an affair. Reo Fortune gives Margaret Mead a choice of him or Benedict, and she chooses Fortune. Mead and Fortune marry (in 1928) and travel to New Guinea to conduct fieldwork with two ethnic groups (in 1931-33). Their marriage is problematic. The more we get to know Reo Fortune, the more odious he seems. It’s easy to imagine why Mead is looking for an excuse to leave him. Enter yet another anthropologist, the British-born Gregory Bateson (“Andrew Bankson”).

Bateson, Mead and Fortune in 1933.

Bateson, Mead, and Fortune in Sydney, Australia (1933)

The rest of the book works out this steamy, jungle–based love triangle (sometimes morphing into a love quadrangle, with Ruth Benedict lingering like a shadow in the background, half a world away).  The local New Guineans serve as exotic and useful backdrops, with cameo appearances and disappearances of individuals but, unfortunately, no well-sketched characters rounded out the way Mead, Benedict, and Fortune are.

The plot is basically Boy Meets Girl (interspersed from time to time with Girl Meets Girl), Second Boy Meets Girl, Girl Agonizes over which Boy to Choose, Girl Gets Pregnant by Boy #1, and . . . Girl Dies in Childbirth?!

Anyone who’s familiar with the four protagonists knows how this story ended in real life. Reo Fortune lost, Ruth Benedict lost, Gregory Bateson won (he and Mead married in 1936), and Catherine Bateson was the result (born in 1939), attesting to this love tri/quadrangle’s outcome. At least, that’s how things turned out until Bateson left Mead in 1947, later to be replaced by fellow anthropologist Rhoda Métraux as Mead’s partner from 1955 until Mead’s death in 1978 of pancreatic cancer. Margaret Mead & Gregory Bateson

Mead and Bateson among the Iatmul in New Guinea (1961)

 

But not in Lily King’s book.

In this alternate reality, before Margaret Mead has a chance to decide to leave Reo Fortune, she miscarries while on a ship to New York, and she dies at sea from hemorrhaging. Gregory Bateson learns of the tragedy while preparing to sail to New York to try once again to convince Margaret Mead to leave Reo Fortune and spend the rest of her life with him.

*

Well, Lily King is a fiction writer.  By definition, she’s allowed to make stuff up.  In fact, she could make everything up.  That’s her stock in trade.

But she’s decided to craft a novel populated by characters based on actual people whose actual lives are actually documented. She’s taken pains to conduct meticulous research on the lives of Mead, Fortune, and Bateson while in New Guinea. Of course, the love scenes are imagined, but the basic contours of what they were doing, and where, hews closely in many ways to their known biographies. Up to the bizarre ending, King has painted an entirely plausible portrait of three people’s lives based on their documented experiences. But then she suddenly switches gears to imagine a substantially alternate reality for these real people who lived real lives in the public eye. If King had good reason for doing so, I could have remained a fan of the book. But she never clarifies, at least for me, why she suddenly fictionalized the basic facts into a drastically alternate scenario.

Had King’s fictional scenario come to pass, the history of anthropology in the 20th century would have looked different. If Margaret Mead’s life had been tragically cut short in the 1930s, as this fiction proposes, what might have been the result? After the years chronicled in the novel, the actual Margaret Mead became the only true public intellectual American anthropology has yet produced–with household name recognition, thanks to her monthly columns in the Ladies Home Journal. If Mead had died in the 1930s, the discipline might well have languished with far less funding, far less prestige, many fewer students taking courses, fewer departments in universities, and far fewer women entering anthropology (and maybe other social sciences as well). Mead not only publicized anthropology, she forged and publicized the possibility of a major female scholar gaining international attention.

Mead Speaking on UN Radio, 1958

Mead speaking on United Nations Radio about the Seminar on Mental Health and Infant Development sponsored by the World Federation of Mental Health (1952)

Mead on Steps of US Capital Bldg, 197

Mead on the steps of the US Capital with the staff that created her signature look in her later years (Jan. 1, 1973)

Of course, we can’t ever know, for sure, what the discipline of anthropology might have become without Mead’s last forty years —that’s the nature of counterfactual stories. But it would have been intriguing for King to speculate on this “What-if” scenario that she postulates. Instead, the story stops short at Mead’s untimely death, with only a brief postscript of sorts, decades later–recounting a brief scene with Gregory Bateson in the American Museum of Natural History in New York (where the real Margaret Mead in fact worked as a curator of ethnology for most of her career, as sexism kept her from a tenure-track or tenured position in any university).

Absent any speculation about how different anthropology would have looked without the giant figure of Margaret Mead, who publicized our discipline as no one, before or since, has ever done, the book’s ending thudded hard for me, with a crashing weight. Lily King hasn’t gifted us with her vision of how her counterfactual narrative might have played out. Right at the moment when the book promises to get insanely interesting, the story aborts.

And why did Lily King even imagine an untimely death of Margaret Mead, preventing her character from having the impact both on the discipline, and on American society, that she went on to have? Again, with that abrupt ending, that question is never answered.

Okay, fiction writers are allowed to pose questions they don’t answer. But, why this question for this character?

This reader was left frustrated.

*

Meanwhile, young women seeking professional role models could do far worse than to read the works of Margaret Mead, memoirs of her life (1901-78) by those who knew her, and Mead’s own early autobiography (Blackberry Winter) and her fascinating Letters from the Field. She was an amazing woman, ahead of her time on so many levels. King starts to show us how. I wish she’d finished the job.

 

Howard, Mead-A LifeBowman-Kruhm, Mead BioGrainger, Uncommon Lives-My Life w M Mead

Lutkehaus, Mead-The Making of an American Icon Mead Bio for Kids Med, Blackberry WinterMead, Letters from the Field
  Saunders, Mead-The World Was Her Family

Anthropologist Author Interviews

Today, I began a new series on my blog: interviews with anthropologists about their new books!

author-interview-image

We anthropologists often write wonderful books . . . that find too few readers.

What better way to find new readers for a book than to interview its author?

I begin this series by interviewing Kristen Ghodsee about her fabulous new book about the craft of writing readable ethnography (From Notes to Narrative: Writing Ethnography that Everyone Can Read).  You can find this inaugural interview here.

Watch out for upcoming interviews with Rosa DeJorio (Cultural Heritage in Mali in the Neoliberal Era) and Jennifer Cole (Affective Circuits: African Migrations to Europe and the Pursuit of Social Regeneration)!

Anthropologists: If you’ve got a new book coming out (or just out recently) and would like to do an e-interview with me about it, let me know!

Writing Ethnographies that Everyone Can Read

Kristen Ghodsee’s new book, From Notes to Narrative: Writing Ethnographies that Everyone Can Read, was recently published by the University of Chicago Press (in 2016).

ghodsee-from-notes-to-narrative-book-cover

The discipline of anthropology desperately needs good writers.  Our writings are often so dense, jargon-packed, and off-putting that I sometimes fear we deserve our reputation for being abstruse and irrelevant.

That’s a shame!

We promote a comparative perspective on the human condition that no other discipline offers.

We’ve created research methods specializing in deep and long-term immersion in communities and languages that no other discipline offers.

And the cumulative data base we’ve constructed is based on extraordinary amounts of research we’ve conducted around the globe, in communities ranging from some of the world’s most vulnerable populations to elites at the center of power.

We have so much to teach people–from political leaders and policy makers to ordinary citizens curious to understand the lives of their neighbors.

But who will listen, if readers can’t get past our first, boring paragraphs?

no-jargon-allowed

Anthropologist Kristen Ghodsee has some great advice for students and scholars who would like their writing to have an impact beyond their professors, students, and colleagues.

And Kristen Ghodsee’s in a great position to teach us how to write.  Her book, Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria (Princeton University Press 2010), won four book prizes.  Another book she co-authored (with Rachel Connelly), Professor Mommy: Finding Work/Family Balance in Academia (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), has attracted wide attention from reviewers.  And a short story she wrote (“Tito Trivia”) won the 2011 Ethnographic Fiction Prize from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

The author of seven books, Ghodsee has focused her research in Bulgaria, where she’s studied the lives of ordinary men and women, and the effects of political transition on Bulgaria’s Muslim minorities.  Her most recent works have been heavily influenced by humanistic anthropology; Ghodsee has experimented with ethnographic fiction, autoethnography, and photo-ethnography, produce intimate narratives and images of the disorienting impacts of the collapse of Communism on daily life.  She is currently serving as the president of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

kristen-ghodsee

Her latest, short book I’m featuring here, From Notes to Narrative, has fourteen chapters of only about ten pages each. In other words, it’s a quick, easy read—yet it packs a rich punch.

One of our discipline’s best writers, Ruth Behar, has this to say about Kristen Ghodsee’s new book about writing ethnography:

“Thank you, Kristen Ghodsee, for offering an absolutely essential guide to ethnographic writing. I fervently hope From Notes to Narrative will be read by every aspiring ethnographic writer, and, most of all, that its lessons will be put into practice. I can’t wait to read the books that will come from this book!”

And Paul Stoller urges: “[T]his work should be required reading for all social scientists.”

You can find a Table of Contents here.

I recently talked with Kristen Ghodsee about her new book. Here’s a record of our e-conversation:

 

Interview with Kristen Ghodsee

 

Alma Gottlieb (AG): What gave you the idea to write the book?

Kristen Ghodsee (KG): The idea first emerged from my undergraduate students. They reacted strongly to certain ethnographic books I assigned in my senior research seminars. My students are smart, motivated, and eager to learn, but they were impatient and critical of books written in what seemed to be deliberately obtuse language. As I removed the offending books from my syllabus, I started to wonder about the conditions under which ethnographies are produced. Ethnographers spend extended periods of time living in communities, but then turn around and write books and articles that members of the community cannot read. That didn’t seem right to me.

 

AG: Have you always loved writing?

KG: Yes. I always wanted to be a writer. I spent the entire summer between sixth and seventh grade writing my first novel. I wrote poetry and fiction throughout high school, and I majored in creative writing when I was an undergraduate student at UC Santa Cruz. I agree with Ruth Behar that many ethnographers are frustrated novelists, but I don’t agree that ethnography is somehow a “second fiddle.” It is a different type of writing than fiction, but good ethnography can be as well crafted, even if its purpose is education rather than entertainment.

 

AG: When you’re not reading anthropology, what do you like to read?

KG: I actually like reading books about writing and creativity, things like Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Stephen King’s On Writing, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. Right now, I’m reading Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style and David Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish. Occasionally, I also read memoirs and autobiographies. I just finished Susan Faludi’s In the Darkroom, and I can’t wait to dive into Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.

 

AG: In your new book, one of your chapters is titled “Minimize Scientism.” Since you’re writing for social scientists, can you explain what you mean by that?

KG: Many of the social sciences, but especially political science, economics, and psychology, have been seduced by the language and style of the natural sciences, creating neologisms or producing technical vocabularies. Sometimes these vocabularies are necessary, but often authors use complex words for simple ideas because they think those words make their work sound more “scientific,” and by extension more important. I think ethnographers should try to write their books for broader audiences, saving disciplinary-specific jargon for their conference presentations and journal articles.

 

AG: Another chapter is titled “Embrace Dialogue.” Some social scientists are nervous about writing dialogue –- partly because they’re unsure of the mechanics, but also because they’d be afraid of inaccurately filling in gaps in conversations they didn’t record. What are your thoughts about the space between fiction and non-fiction?

KG: Regarding the use of dialogue: Every ethnographer has to make a personal decision based on her own individual circumstances. There is always the risk of filling in the gaps of conversations they didn’t record, and this is especially true if you are working in a foreign language and translating other people’s words into English. But I think it is possible to be true to the content of a conversation while representing it in dialogue form. The problem is that ethnographers don’t learn the mechanics of dialogue and tend to rely on lengthy block quotations that are less interesting for the reader.

Producing accurate dialogue is hard work, and I understand that not everyone has the time or inclination to do so in scholarly texts. Some books are written for a handful of scholarly peers, and it may not be worth the extra effort. I recently saw the production budget for a book from a major university press, and it assumes that academic monographs won’t sell more than 750 copies in their lifetime. With such a small audience, why invest time in making a book readable? But maybe the reason only 750 people read any given academic book is because they are so damn difficult to read.

 

AG: The penultimate chapter is called “Find Your Process.” That might sound rather funky and even a bit mystical to some scholars. What would you say to social scientists who might be surprised by this chapter?

KG: It sounds mystical, but it is really about finding time to write, and optimizing the conditions under which you write. All of the academics I interviewed had specific writing rituals that helped them work, and this chapter is really about exploring the tips and tricks that people have to make them more productive.

 

AG: What’s the one question you’re most hoping interviewers will ask you about the book?

KG: Is it easier to write a book about writing ethnography than it is to write an actual ethnography?

KG: Not easier, but more fun. Writing this book actually made me a better writer, because I have started taking my own advice!